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Recommended Reading: The Other Lands

18 May

“Develop legends. Heroes on horseback and such things…. Find stories that include horses. If you can’t find them, insert the horses. Plant the seeds. Add another layer to the lore and let it be spoken of in taverns and halls and told to children at night, that sort of thing. Get the people dreaming horses.”

So says Queen Corinn Akaran in the second part of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia series, The Other Lands, which I have recently finished reading. I love this book. There’s absolutely no padding – rare for epic fantasy – although there are enough fresh ideas in this one volume to fill an entire series. In the quote above, Queen Corinn is explaining how she intends to start using horses to inspire awe in others, and create a divide between the royal family and the rest of the populace. This idea, of how history is manipulated by those in power, runs strongly through the book, as does the theme of slavery:

“Some even forget that they are not free, forget that their individual desires could be any different from the orders given to them.”

I found the writing itself to be quite beautiful, particularly Durham’s descriptions of the “foulthings” monsters (you know me… I loves me monsters) and the heartwarming passages about Elya, the non-foul foulthing. It’s a long time since I’ve been so caught up in a book that I’ve had to skip to the end of a chapter to see if things turn out OK. I was pleased to learn more about the League – boat-faring traders who thrive on greed, consumerism, and exploitation. As with the first book in the series, The War With The Mein, Durham’s world is wonderfully multicultural – again, refreshing in a genre over-populated by quasi-Medieval Europes.

I have to admit that the characters I enjoyed reading the most were the less savoury types: the weak and perpetually terrified Leagueman, Rialus; vain, ambitious Delivegu; and Queen Corinn Akaran, so sympathetically written that, despite disliking her intensely, I can’t help but also feel sorry for her. Not an easy trick to pull off, I’d say.

I look forward to the next volume in the series, and in the meantime, I may well read some of Durham’s other, non-fantasy novels.

Finch: Recommended Reading

3 Feb

I’ve just finished Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch. Wow. What a truly amazing book; there really is nothing else like it out there. I’m a big fan of the Ambergris cycle, and the Gray Caps are absolutely my favourite aliens, mostly because they actually are completely alien. Everything about them is unfathomable, and I am so glad that the mystique surrounding them remains in this book, despite us also finding out a lot more about them. This novel is gloriously claustrophobic, and the relentless plot is reflected in the clipped language. The story can kind of be summed up in one line that appears towards the end of the book:

“You’re a man who did the best he could in impossible circumstances.”

I particularly liked the character of Wyte, and Finch’s relationship with him, and I think my favourite point in the book comes when Wyte attacks a group of Partials – the Gray Caps’ human servants, who have been transformed into fungal mutants.

The bullets. Wyte kept taking them like gifts. They tore through limbs, lodged in his torso. Leaving holes, Leaving daylight. That closed up. And running in the shadow of that magnificence…he felt as if he were following some sort of god, his own gun like a toy…

The theme of colonisation is at the heart of the novel. Ambergris, and the land on which it stands, is a land that has been repeatedly invaded and occupied, first by the Gray Caps, then by human settlers, and then again by the Gray Caps in the Rising. But an indigenous populations remains, and the idea of colonisation being not just to do with the land but to do with how people are transformed by invasion and occupation, is explored beautifully. Wyte secretly wants to join the rebels, but he has been infected by a Gray Cap fungus. Finch says, when referring to his infections, “…you’ve been colonized . And it’s gone too far. And they’ll never take you.” The land and its people are changing and transforming and there is no going back.

Highly recommended.